Distracted driving riskiest for new drivers

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 15, 2014.

New teen drivers were eight times more likely to have an accident or close call if they were dialing behind the wheel, a study found. Photo: LM Otero, Associated Press
New teen drivers were eight times more likely to have an accident or close call if they were dialing behind the wheel, a study found. Photo: LM Otero, Associated Press

American drivers dial, they text, they eat and they reach – whatever they do, they take their eyes off the road 10 percent of the time they are behind the wheel, according to a new study, and that makes the roadways less safe.

Phone dialing and texting were the distractions that come with the greatest risk of accident for all drivers, but for new drivers, even eating, reaching for an object, or looking at something on the side of the road increases the chances of a crash, the study found.

The findings come from a Virginia Tech and National Institutes of Health study published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine. For 12-18 months, researchers used in-vehicle cameras and sensors to track about 150 drivers, a quarter of whom were teens who had only had their licenses for three weeks.

One result was a little surprising – strictly talking on the phone did not increase the risk of accident for adults or teens, but reaching for the phone and dialing it did, so researchers say they don’t endorse using the phone while driving.

“Our data support the current trend in implementing restrictions on texting and cell phone use in vehicles,” said study co-author Dr. Bruce Simons-Morton in a statement. “As new forms of technology increasingly are available in cars, it’s important that drivers don’t feel compelled to answer every incoming call or text. For young drivers’ safety, parents can model this habit when they are at the wheel, and also let their children know that they should wait until the vehicle is stopped before taking a call – even when it’s from mom or dad.”

Here’s a look at distracted driving risks by the numbers:

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Adult drivers in the study were more than two times as likely to crash or have a near miss when dialing a cell phone compared with when they were not dialing. This data was collected in 2003-04, before widespread texting, but the researchers suspect sending texts while driving also increases adults’ risk of auto crashes.

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Newly licensed teen drivers were eight times more likely to have an accident or a near miss if they were dialing a phone behind the wheel. Researchers collected the data between 2006-08, when texting was growing in popularity. Texting, the researchers found, made teens four times more likely to crash or have a near miss.

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Teen drivers were three times more likely to crash or nearly crash while eating behind the wheel. They were seven to eight times more likely to crash or almost crash when reaching for a phone or other object in the car. Neither of these activities increased adult drivers’ likelihood of crashing.

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The percentage of American drivers who are 15 to 20 years old. Yet they are involved in 11 percent of fatal car accidents and 14 percent of the ones that result in injury.